South China Sea at top of US agenda at Asia security summit

South China Sea at top of US agenda at Asia security summit

By Loree Lewis   
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosts a meeting with Australia's Minister of Defense Kevin Andrews and Japan's Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, May 30, 2015. (DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

China is reportedly setting the stage to establish an aerial defense identification zone in the area — a move the U.S. Defense Department said would be “provocative” and not recognized militarily.

SINGAPORE (Talk Media News) – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Singapore Thursday to attend an Asia centric security summit in the midst of rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Carter, who is slated to speak Saturday at the 15th annual Shangri-La Dialogue, said he plans to strike a tone reflective of “principle and inclusion, as well as strength.”

The U.S. and China continued to butt heads over maritime claims in South China Sea up until the conference. Most recently, China is reportedly setting the stage to establish an aerial defense identification zone in the area — a move the U.S. Defense Department said would be “provocative” and not recognized militarily.

China has built up rocks and reefs in the sea into full islets, adding landing strips, aircraft and missile systems to some. Off of these islets, Beijing has claimed territorial control into the surrounding waters, prompting to the U.S. to conduct “freedom of navigation exercises” in protest. China has said it is these patrols and the U.S.’s growing military relations with South Asian countries that contribute to the militarization of the region.

The U.S. lifted an arms embargo from one-time enemy, and China’s neighbor, Vietnam during President Barack Obama’s visit to the country two weeks back.

This past Friday, Carter said China was creating a “Great Wall of self-isolation” because of their actions in their actions South China Sea, and said Beijing wants and enjoys the benefits of free trade and a free internet, but sometimes chooses to restrict both.

China responded that the U.S. is “stuck in the cold war era,” and said Carter only made the remarks to provide cover for U.S. plans to deploy additional military forces to the Asia Pacific.

Five trillion dollars of global trade passes through the South China Sea every year. The region is also a fertile fishing ground and thought to be home to huge untapped gas and oil reserves.

China isn’t the only nation with claim to the region. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have claims. The U.S. does not back a claimant.

A United Nations tribunal is expected to rule on a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in July. China has said it will not accept the ruling and insists that conflicts should be resolved between claimants.

President elect of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has said the same, negating the lawsuit filed by the current president who leaves office June 30. On Tuesday, Duterte said he plans to chart a course for the Philippines, a former U.S. colony and longtime ally, that “won’t be dependent on America.”

The ruling from the tribunal will provide “an opportunity to conduct constructive diplomacy in the region, designed to manage tensions, not destructive activities that undermine stability,” a senior U.S. defense official said, including that the U.S. sees the decision as “binding” on both China and the Philippines.

“Everything we do in the context of our alliance with the Philippines is designed to allow the Philippines to chart its own course,” the defense official said. “That’s the essence of our policy, with the Philippines and throughout the region.”

On Friday, Carter will fly a joint patrol of the Malacca Strait on board a U.S. P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft with his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen. Singapore agreed to host the aircraft last year as part of an enhanced defense cooperation agreement. This prompted China to accuse the U.S. of “regional militarization.”

Singapore, a largely neutral actor, in the past has called on parties involved in the South China Sea dispute to resolve the conflict without the use of force.

Where the U.S. and China disagree, there also is mutual interest. For one, keeping an increasingly “provocative” North Korea in check.

North Korea failed at launching a mid-range ballistic missile this week, marking the fifth such attempt. The failed lunch comes after claiming to have detonated a hydrogen bomb and launching a satellite into space, which experts saw as a cover for testing missile technology. The actions are in volition of U.N. Security Council resolutions, to which both the U.S. and China are party.

“I think everyone is pretty frustrated at … North Korean behavior,” Carter said Thursday. “ … We continue to stand strong with our allies in their defense, in our collective defense — namely the Republican of Korea and Japan.”

The U.S. is pushing ahead with deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system missile to South Korea, expecting it to arrive soon. China has protested the plan, saying it will be harmful to Beijing’s interests and could lead to an arms race on the Peninsula.

During the summit, Carter will brief a number of Asian countries on progress in the counter-ISIS mission.

“I’m not satisfied with [contributions from] anyone, including the United States,” Carter said Thursday. “We’re constantly looking for new opportunities to accelerate the defeat of [ISIS].”

Within South Asia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are the countries “most likely to be threatened” by ISIS related activities, according to the same defense official.

Carter plans to meet with officials from South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and India during the three-day conference. During the meeting with Japanese leaders, the “deplorable” murder of a young woman by an American military contractor in Okinawa and the movement of the base Futenma will be discussed.

While Carter is not slated to meet with the delegation attending the summit from China, U.S. officials have stressed that the nations are still working closely. High-level officials will meet at both the Strategic and Security Summit and the Strategic and Economic Summit in Beijing next week.

“The American approach is extremely consistent, not just last year and this year, but for years and years. And that’s really the meaning of the American presence here,” Carter said to reporters while in transit to Singapore from the U.S. “ … It’s standing for principle and inclusion as well as strength. It has been one of the key factors in keeping peace and stability in the Asia Pacific which in turn has led to all of the wonderful miracles of human progress that have occurred out here.”

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